“The Queen’s Gambit,” a relatively new addition to Netflix, has more than chess to recommend it to viewers. Shortly after its release, the show became the No. 1 trending item on the streaming network. The one-season show is based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis. The show draws in audiences who might or might not have an interest in chess. The complex storylines, the settings, and the music help to make the world of championship chess in the 1960s and 1970s relevant to contemporary viewers.
“The Queen’s Gambit”: how it works
“The Queen’s Gambit” essentially shows the difficulty of genius. Beth Harmon, the story’s protagonist, is shown living with her mentally ill mother, who had a Ph.D. from Cornell in mathematics. Her mother’s desperate act makes Beth an orphan. While in the orphan’s home, Beth meets a janitor who secretly plays chess in what could best be described as the mechanical room. Beth is no easy prodigy; she has, after all, suffered great trauma. Her mind is clearly blown by chess, and as a result, Beth imagines a giant chessboard on her ceiling at night and innovates moves. This mental exercise, and Beth’s need for it, will be dramatically revisited when Beth is living in affluence after being adopted, she has to rip the top of her four-post canopy bed, in order to see the ceiling clearly.
This is the 1960s, and Beth’s triumphs are not easily won. Well, against most of her opponents, all of them male, she does win. But Beth’s victories come with the young woman having to deal an uninterested adoptive mother, an absent adoptive father, and a society that is simply not ready for a girl or young woman to achieve in areas not assumed to be of interest to them.
The series showcasing of events reminds viewers that the societal fabric of the US has only changed in recent years. In addition, the complexities that are created for Beth – – her parents, her friends, her substance abuse, make the show unfold like a biography, but from all accounts, both the novel on which “The Queen’s Gambit” is based and the show, are fiction. But the level of engagement on the part of viewers is so engrossing that the story feels real.
Depending on the interests of viewers, some might find the development of Beth’s personal style as she begins to win substantial amounts of money as a professional chess player, worth noting. The lighting, too, works to highlight Beth’s red hair and the color of the cities she tours, and adds layers of mystery and style to the expensive hotel rooms Beth finds herself in, including the one in which her adoptive mother dies.
The moment of Mrs. Wheatley’s death is particularly poignant because viewers have watched she and Beth forge a loving relationship after reeling from the desertion of Beth’s adoptive father. Both women suffer from substance abuse; Beth’s began in the orphanage. They connect on many levels. It is the kind of human experience not often captured so well in a streaming series.
Because Beth is a young woman during certain time periods, rock music is often playing in the background. The show’s creators take great pains in showing Beth as not just a tormented genius (she is), but also as a youthful person during some of the most important eras in popular music. Songs by Peggy Lee, Shocking Blue, Skeeter Davis, The Vogues and others help to bring the already vibrant series to life.
There is much to recommend “The Queen’s Gambit.” During this time of pandemic and unease, it is worth noting that a show about a girl who overcomes the odds in a male-dominated arena. can still win hearts